New York - Say what you will about Geert Wilders – and his critics, not least the Islamic clerics who issue near-daily fatwas commanding his death, have made their views plain – there is no gainsaying that the man has guts. Ever since 2004, when the Dutch politician emerged as one of Europe’s more forthright foes of Islamic fundamentalism, Wilders, 45, has been the subject of considerable obloquy, both in his native Netherlands, where he is scorned by the political elite, and abroad, where he is the target of untold assassination plots.
But not only has his international infamy not deterred Wilders from declaring against Islamic extremism –and, more controversially, Islam as a whole – but it has actually spurred him to become even more outspoken about what he considers to be its mortal threat to Western civilization. Most recently, he made the point in his provocative 15-minute film, “Fitna” (“challenge” in Arabic), released on the internet last May to much handwringing in Europe’s political salons and the obligatory denunciations and death threats in the Muslim world. Agree or disagree with its message, there is no disputing its subtext: Geert Wilders will not be silenced.
This much was apparent during his September 25 stop in New York. Part of an outreach tour by Wilders and several members of his two-year-old political party, the rightist-populist Party for Freedom, the visit was designed to forge links with ideological allies in the U.S. and to explain just how parlous is the state of affairs in a Europe that is, as Wilders sees it, if not yet lost to Islam, nevertheless on the cusp of cultural and political surrender. At a lunch sponsored by the Hudson Institute, the conservative think tank, Wilders – tall, slightly tense and sporting the signature peroxide-blond bouffant that makes him look like a right-wing Mozart – offered an apt demonstration of what it is that has his European colleagues discomfited and his jihadist revilers literally clamoring for his head.
For those who’ve followed his career, it was vintage Wilders. Whether it was his recommended response to immigrants who refuse to assimilate (“there’s the door and there’s the shredder for your passport”), or his politically incorrect references to the “so-called prophet” Mohammed (“mass murderer and a sick pedophile”) and the Koran (the Muslim “Mein Kampf”), or his nod to the Iranian government (“crazy lunatics”), Wilders could not be accused of excessive diplomacy. And he was never more animated than on the subject that fuels his more health-hazardous tirades. At one point, Wilders presented what he called a lesson in “Islam 101.” It went like this: “Islam is not a religion. It’s a political ideology. If you want to compare it then the only thing you can compare it to is communism. It’s a totalitarian ideology.” Lest there be any misunderstanding, Wilders added that there was no such thing as moderate Islam. “Sure, there are moderate Muslims,” he said. “But there is no moderate Islam.”
Kindred themes feature in his film “Fitna.” To say that Wilders does not present Islam as a religion of peace is to put it mildly. “Fitna” juxtaposes graphic footage of Islamic terrorism – including the 9-11 attacks, the Madrid train bombings, and the beheading of Nicholas Berg – with Koranic verses and clips of Islamic clerics preaching murder of non-Muslims and Jews. Low-budget and unabashedly one-sided – Wilders seems uninterested in the possibility that there is more to foundational Islamic texts than murderous calls to arms – it is not exactly a polished work, something Wilders readily concedes. “I’m a lawmaker not a moviemaker,” he says. But like its creator, the film is nothing if not direct.
However one judges its content, the fact that “Fitna” has been released at all is something of an achievement. State-owned Dutch television stations refused to screen it last spring. Meanwhile, Dutch Muslims, unwittingly confirming Wilders’s skepticism about the compatibility of Islamic mores and democratic values, called for the film to be banned. The political establishment, too, failed to distinguish itself. Dutch Prime Minister Jan Peter Balkenende did nothing to discourage the hotter heads in the Muslim community when he announced that “Fitna” “serves no other purpose than to cause offense.” Dutch Foreign Minister Maxime Verhagen similarly urged Wilders not to show the film because it could “endanger the lives of Dutch nationals” abroad. (Appearances notwithstanding, Verhagen insisted that he was “not trying to meet demands from anti-democratic forces and terrorists in the Middle East.”) “It was an absolute disgrace,” Wilders recalls of such reactions.
More menacing was the preemptive outrage in the Muslim world. In a grim replay of the Danish cartoon controversy of 2005, Dutch flags were burned, as muftis promised bloodshed if the film were shown. In Indonesia, where protestors brandished banners proclaiming “Kill Geert Wilders,” the government appealed to Dutch authorities to outlaw the film and, failing to get its way, permanently barred Wilders from entering the country. The Taliban, after getting word of the film’s release, vowed to increase attacks on Dutch troops in Afghanistan. Al-Qaeda-linked groups issued internet death threats against Wilders.
While some of the threats proved empty, others were all-too credible. Indeed, today Wilders is in more danger than ever – no small feat for a man who just a few years ago was forced to spend nights in high-security prison cells and safe houses to avoid the gruesome fate of another Dutch filmmaker, Theo Van Gogh, who was savagely murdered by Moroccan Islamist Mohammed Bouyeri in November 2004. In the past two months in particular, the threats have multiplied. “It’s embarrassing even to talk about it,” Wilders says when I ask him about his security arrangements. For obvious reasons, he doesn’t want to divulge the size of his security detail, but he does say that “they would have to clear the street” in Amsterdam to accommodate them all. Even in the relative safety of Manhattan, Wilders takes no chances. As he spoke, two tall men in black suits and crew cuts sat watchfully by the door.
Safety concerns have limited Wilders’s public presence, but they have not diminished his political stature. Just the opposite: His Party for Freedom (PVV) now has nine members in the 150-member Dutch parliament, where it continues to press for its Wilders-inspired platform of restricting immigration from Muslim countries; for more aggressively monitoring domestic extremism, including radical mosques; and for reducing an indulgent welfare state that allows immigrants to live comfortably without assimilating. To be sure, these remain minority views in Dutch politics. “We vote every Tuesday and it’s always the same,” says Martin Bosma, a PVV MP. “Nine people raise their hands and the other 141 stare at their shoes.” Nonetheless, Bosma says that “we have a lot of reasons to be optimistic.” The PVV currently has around 10 percent support in national polls, he notes. Double what it attracted when it first stood for election in 2006, this would translate into 15 seats in the parliament in the next general election in 2010.
The PVV also has another thing going for it: Its animating anxiety about the dangers of Islamic extremism is now shared by large parts of the Dutch electorate. In a 2004 poll, 47 percent of the Dutch admitted to fearing that they would have to live according to Islamic rules in the Netherlands at some point. Similarly, in a May 2005 poll, 43 percent of the Dutch said Islam was incompatible with Western society, results that were more than matched the following year, when a poll found that the majority of native Dutch found Islam intolerant (52 percent), violent (40 percent), and hostile to women (70 percent). Increasingly, it seems, Wilders is preaching to the choir.
To his political adversaries, these polls are proof of Wilders’s malign influence on Dutch politics. In this exegesis, it is only Wilders and the PVV’s “racism” and “xenophobia,” bolstered by “an alarmist presentation of Muslim immigration to the Netherlands and Europe,” that is causing the Dutch to doubt the model of all-tolerant multiculturalism that has prevailed for so long.
The reality, though, is more complex. Although, at around one million, the Dutch Muslim community still is only about 5.8 percent of the population, it is increasingly a majority in some neighborhoods – and a hostile one at that. Overtoomse Veld, the west Amsterdam neighborhood of Theo Van Gogh’s killer Mohammed Bouyeri, is by some estimates 80 to 90 percent Muslim. Major Dutch cities like Rotterdam, now home to the Islamic University of Rotterdam, are nearly half Muslim. On their face, such statistics may seem unobjectionable. But it has not escaped notice that these cities, with their restive and unassimilated immigrant populations, boast some of the highest crime rates in the Netherlands and serve as havens for religious radicalism. Nor do Dutch voters need Wilders to wonder about some Muslims’ capacity for tolerance. A spate of attacks on gay men by young Muslim thugs in Amsterdam, once the self-styled “gay capital of Europe,” has convincingly made the case for him.
Among those disinclined to debate him, it’s fashionable to dismiss Wilders as a populist vulgarian who revels in giving offense. The writer Ian Baruma, writing in the New Yorker, has quipped that Wilders sees “delicacy as a sign of fraudulence.” But this is something of a misconception. Despite his exuberantly confrontational rhetoric, Wilders himself is thoughtful, personable, and hard to mistake for the Muslim-hating bigot that some imagine him to be. For instance, as he was doing an interview in New York, a man tapped him on the shoulder. It was Ebby Moussazadeh, a board member at the Hudson Institute. Pointing to his nametag, Moussazadeh said, faux-menacingly, “It’s a Muslim name.” Wilders brightened. “Iranian,” he said. “I recognize it.” Wilders explained that he had travelled to Iran a number of times before his recent notoriety and said that he would one day like to return to the country when it is politically free.
Still, it’s true that Wilders comes across as too hard-edged for some. Even as he recognizes that, he is not about to moderate his take-no-prisoners style. On the contrary, he sees it as a way of injecting urgency into the European debate about Islam and multiculturalism. “In Europe, we have consensus in our veins,” Wilders told me. “What we did for the last 30 years is compromise all the time; it was all carrots and no sticks. All we have to show for it is a lot of orange and a lot of trouble.” No more, he says. “You have to be heard. Right now, people are speaking without really saying what they mean. It’s not enough to talk about immigration. You have to get to the core of the issue, which is that Islam is incompatible with democracy.”
Since the conversation has turned to Islam, his combative side resurfaces. Although Wilders isn’t ready to go into further detail, he reveals that he is planning to make a sequel to “Fitna.” This time, though, it is Wilders who offers the preemptive threat, directed at Islamic radicals: He will not be stopped. “If I stopped talking about this, the people who want to kill me would have a holiday,” he explains. “I cannot let them win.”
Geert Wilders photo credit: Beowulf Sheehan.